Analysis |

Turkey's 'Misunderstood Prophet' Is Really Just a Loose Cannon

Blaming Israel for Egyptian coup was in character for Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose reckless rhetoric doesn’t always go over well with his countrymen.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went a bit off the rails last week. Blaming Israel for concocting the military coup in Egypt overdid even his usual attacks. Erdogan was indeed immediately reprimanded by the U.S. administration, in response to which he characteristically attacked the Americans.

During a meeting with members of his Justice and Development Party, he countered, “What business is it of theirs?” and promised he would speak to senior Washington officials about the reprimand.

A high-ranking member of the Justice and Development Party told Haaretz that Erdogan made a mistake when basing his claim on a 2011 assertion by French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy that the Muslim Brotherhood should be barred from winning power, and presented this assertion as proof of a conspiracy. “It would have been better if he did not mention Israel,” said the senior member, “but the position he is presenting is accurate. What happened in Egypt is a military coup, and the world should see it this way.”

That is not the opinion of senior Turkish commentator Yusuf Kanli. “Is there another state whose foreign policy is planned and implemented before the cameras?” wondered Kanli in an article in the Hurriyet Daily News, the paper that continues, undaunted, to criticize the prime minister’s policies.

The article continued: “The absolute ruler and his [minister] for foreign affairs (Ahmet Davutoglu) publish their decrees directly, pronouncing the last word before the first, and what is worse – they do this in front of the cameras. Turkey is a local power seeking to become a world power, yet for some reason we now have no ambassadors in Cairo, Damascus, or Tel Aviv. Only yesterday we were close friends of sheikhs from the Gulf countries and of the Saudi king. Today we deride these countries and Turkish leaders attack them. Shouldn’t the prime minister have relied on some kind of trustworthy intelligence source before blaming Israel for planning the coup in Egypt? The local power wishing to become a world power has been slapped in the face by Uncle Sam. … Is Turkey so oblivious to power relations in the world or to Israel-U.S. relations?”

At odds with public 
over Egypt

Turkey is certainly aware of these relations, but awareness in and of itself is not enough; what is needed is for political wisdom to win out over emotion, and this, not for the first time, is the principal stumbling block. Erdogan, considered a hero after cutting off relations with Bashar Assad and clashing with Israel, put off the Arab public by deciding to support the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab states, and apparently most of the Arab public, have no wish to live under radical religious rule. They are, in fact, prepared to adopt the Turkish model – a religious prime minister in a state that defines itself as secular – as long as this model is a local product, rather than an external dictate.

Erdogan, by contrast, saw the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood as a gift from above that would turn Egypt into Turkey’s sister state, in compensation for the loss of the Syrian ally. His conduct with respect to the military coup in Egypt and the diplomatic war against Assad are commendable. But whereas in the Syrian case he calculated well in terms of popularity, in Egypt’s case he got it wrong in trying to set a moral standard for his foreign policy. Morality, as he learned, is a dangerous trap in policy management.

Erdogan detests criticism, and bridles at it. His relentless war against the press, complete with accusations against reporters and newspapers, as well as his impulsive response to the reprimand from Washington, attest to this. He sees himself as a misunderstood prophet whose message everyone wants to thwart. A prophet, as is well known, is never mistaken. If the world does not agree with his foreign policy, the problem is of course with the world, not with Erdogan. And when the world is wrong, it must be changed.

Last week Erdogan presented his vision for changing the world, or at least the world’s decision-making process. It is unacceptable, he said, that five countries (the permanent members of the Security Council) decide the world’s fate. He was outraged by the watered-down resolution of the UN council in response to the massacre of over 1,000 Syrian citizens with chemical weapons, but also by what he considers the council’s weakness on the Egyptian crisis.

Alternative UN

Erdogan proposes to the UN member states to simply resign and set up an alternative United Nations in which all states have equal power. Don’t hold your breath. Turkey intends to compete for a place as a temporary member of the Security Council in 2015-2016. Of course, this is the same Security Council into which Erdogan thrust his daggers last week.

Undoubtedly, the United Nations, a body whose ability to resolve or prevent wars and conflicts is non-existent, requires profound reform. But the call to dissolve it and establish a new institution is, at best, a display of megalomania.

In the Justice and Development Party there are activists who fear that Erdogan’s conduct may harm the party’s chances of achieving landslide victories in the three elections set to take place over the next two years.

The first test will be in March 2014, when the elections for local councils are held; five months later there are the presidential elections; and in June 2015, the elections for parliament. Foreign policy does not usually influence election results, but when it presents the prime minister as making flawed decisions, that may influence voters even at the local level.

Erdogan speaks during the opening session of the Ministry For European Union Affairs Conference. Istanbul, June 7, 2013.Credit: AFP

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